battle of Dien Bien Phu
In 1953, the French had begun to strengthen their defenses in the
Hanoi delta region and to prepare for a series of offences against
Viet Minh staging areas in northwest Vietnam. They had set up a
number of fortified towns and outposts in the area, including Lai-Chau
near the Chinese border to the north, Na San to the west of Hanoi,
and Luang-Prabang and Plaine des Jarres in northern Laos.
That spring, General Vo Nguyen Giap of the Viet Minh launched a
major offensive against Na San. After several days of fierce fighting,
Vo withdrew most of his forces. The French reasoned that if a smaller,
hastily prepared base like Na San could do so much damage in a pitched
battle, a well-planned one could bring the Viet Minh force to task.
sites were studied, but Dien Bien Phu rose to the top. The
village lay in a bowl-shaped valley with a bottom that was
flat enough for a major airbase, was near or on several major
roads, and was surrounded by easily defendable hills. If the
hills could be taken, the valley would be secure and could
be used as a major air-supply route.
All of the advantages for the French were equal disadvantages
for the Viet Minh. A number of their troop concentrations
were on the far side of the valley, supplied via the roads
that would be cut. These forces would be forced to move east
over considerably rougher terrain or to open the roads with
an attack on the base itself; the French hoped for the latter.
In addition, the same terrain should prevent the movement
of the Viet Minh's Chinese-supplied artillery into the area.
On the downside, Dien Bien Phu was far enough from Saigon
that, if a major fight did break out, the French air transport
units would be hard-pressed to keep up with demands. Although
they believed they were barely able to make it work, no steps
were taken to improve this vital part of the operation.
Vo Nguyen Giap, Vietnam's legendary war hero, meets with American
writers, including Larry Heinemann (blue shirt) in Hanoi,
late 1953, as both sides prepared for peace talks, the French decided
to strengthen their hand at the table with one major victory, and
started the process of taking Dien Bien Phu.
The battle proper opened on March 13 when, much to the surprise
of the French, the Viet Minh unleashed a massive artillery barrage.
By the end of the first night 9,000 shells had fallen on the area,
and the Beatrice and Gabrielle positions had both fallen. In a major
logistical feat, the Viet Minh had dragged scores of artillery pieces
up steeply forested hillsides that the French had written off as
impassable. The French artillery commander, distraught at his inability
to bring counter fire on the well-camouflaged Viet Minh batteries,
went into his dugout and killed himself with a hand grenade. He
was buried there in great secrecy to prevent loss of morale among
the French troops.
The French responded by parachuting in reinforcements, but they
were fired on by anti-aircraft guns, another surprise on the part
of the Viet Minh. Considering the vital need for air supply, this
was a troubling development for the defenders of the base. The French
also started using their ground attack aircraft against the artillery,
but there were not enough to have any real effect, considering how
well the guns were hidden.
Realizing the importance of the air supply, Giap switched from the
massed attacks to a steady encroachment, conducting a web of trenches
and artillery bombardments. In addition, the Viet Minh started the
process of digging long trenches towards the middle of the camp,
covering their movements from direct fire, and allowing for a build-up
and assault under cover. The first runway fell after a five-day
advance from the 18th to the 23rd. The last aircraft landed on the
28th on the second runway, but was destroyed in the process. The
French responded with an offensive of their own on the 28th, attacking
anti-aircraft positions. On the 31st the French recaptured two of
the hilltop fortifications, Dominique and Eliane, but later had
to evacuate them due to lack of reinforcements.
re-supply now entirely by parachute, supply flow started to dwindle.
A good portion of the airdropped supplies landed in Viet Minh-controlled
areas, giving them much needed materiel. The Vietnamese had essentially
won the battle at this point, and they referred to the remainder
of the battle as "slowly bleeding the dying elephant".
During the last week of April the yearly monsoon arrived, further
reducing the effectiveness of any air support that could be given.
Trenches became hazards, and bunkers collapsed. The last replacements-4,306
soldiers under General Marcel Bigeard, parachuted in between March
14 and May 6-did not even make up for the losses suffered between
those dates, 5,500. The French launched "Operation Condor"
in April to relieve the garrison by sending a relief force from
the Laotian capital to the valley. But the force became stalled
in the featureless Laotian jungle and the garrison was isolated.
The French saw that defeat was imminent, but they sought to hold
on till the Geneva peace meeting, which took place on April 26.
The last French offensive took place on May 4, but it was ineffective.
The Viet Minh then began to hammer the fort with newly acquired
Russian rocket artillery. Giap mounted his final assault on May
1. From all sides the Viet Minh troops attacked the French positions
and despite fierce resistance from French and Foreign Legion troops,
Dominique, Eliane and Huguette were overrun over the next three
days. By then, the French food rations were down to only five days
and many of the troops were low on ammunition. Their hospital, short
on medical supplies, was overcrowding with dead and wounded and
the French morale was beginning to crack.
final fall took two days, May 6th and 7th, during which the
French fought on but were eventually overrun by a huge frontal
assault. The final assault was on May 7, where after another
massive Viet Minh artillery barrage, 25,000 of Giap's remaining
men attacked the fewer than 3,000 French troops in the shrinking
perimeter. The Viet Minh poured into the remaining French
defence and despite determined resistance from the French,
the equally determined Viet Minh reached the French headquarters
by 5:30 p.m. and De Castries surrendered. Although strongpoint
Isabelle was to survive for another 24 hours, the siege of
Dien Bien Phu was technically over. The 11,000 or more prisoners
taken at Dien Bien Phu were the greatest number the Viet Minh
had ever captured: one-third of the total captured during
the entire war.
troops surrender on 7 April 1954.
victory by the Viet Minh led to the 1954 Geneva accords, which partitioned
Vietnam into communist North Vietnamese and French South Vietnamese
administered zones. This partition was supposed to be temporary,
and the two zones were supposed to be reunited by national elections
in 1956. After the French withdrawal, the U.S. supported the southern
government under Ngo Dinh Diem, which opposed the agreement The
dispute eventually escalated into the Second Indochina War that
lasted until 1975 when the North finally won the war and unified
Son (Ho Chi Minh) Trail
Ho Chi Minh Trail was a complex web of different jungle paths that
enabled the North Vietnamese troops to travel to areas close to
Saigon. It has been estimated that the National Liberation Front
received sixty tons of aid per day from this route. Most of this
was carried by porters. Occasionally bicycles and ponies would also
regular intervals along the route the NLF built base camps.
As well as providing a place for them to rest, the base camps
provided medical treatment for those who had been injured
or had fallen ill on the journey.
the early days of the war it took six months to travel from
North Vietnam to Saigon on the Ho Chi Minh Trail. But the
more people who traveled along the route the easier it became.
By 1970, fit and experienced soldiers could make the journey
in six weeks.
The Trail is divided into 2 parts: the distance from the Ca
River Valley in Ha Tinh province to Hai Van Pass in Da Nang
is called the Northern Truong Son Trail; the distance from
Hai Van Pass to the region adjacent to the Mekong Delta in
Binh Duong and Binh Phuoc provinces, is called the Southern
Truong Son Trail.
movement on the Truong Son (Ho Chi Minh) trail
Truong Son Trail, or Ho Chi Minh Trail, was a great military success
of the North Vietnamese. They used the Ho Chi Minh Trail to send
soldiers to the south. At times, as many as 20,000 soldiers a month
came from Hanoi in this way. The dangers for the North Vietnamese
forces on the Ho Chi Minh Trail were both American bombs and diseases
From the air the Ho Chi Minh Trail was impossible to identify and
although massive firepower of the American and South Vietnamese
armed forces tried to destroy this vital supply line by heavy bombing,
they failed to stem flows of materiel, supplies and troops into
South Vietnam. Many South Vietnamese strategists contended that
bombings, sporadic land operations or electronic barrier so-called
"McNamara Line" would fail to interdict the North movement
on the Trail. According to them, only a defence line of several
infantry divisions across the border, reaching the Mekong River
in Laos could have been effective. This plan was abandoned in 1967
after repeated attacks by the NLF on those involved in constructing
tunnels of Cu Chi are an immense network of connecting underground
tunnels located in the Cu Chi district of Vietnam, and are part
of a much larger network of tunnels that underlie much of the country.
The Cu Chi tunnels were the location of several military campaigns
during the Vietnam War, and were the Viet Cong base of operations
for the Tet Offensive in 1968.
tunnels were used by Viet Cong guerrillas as hiding spots during
combat, as well as serving as communication and supply routes, hospitals,
food and weapon caches and living quarters for numerous guerrilla
fighters. The role of the tunnel systems cannot be underestimated
in its importance to the Viet Cong in resisting American operations
and protracting the war, eventually forcing the Americans into withdrawal.
district of Cu Chi is located 40 kilometres to the northwest
of Saigon near the so-called "Iron Triangle". Both
the Saigon River and Route 1 pass through the region which
served as major supply routes in and out of Saigon during
the war. This area was also the termination of the Ho Chi
Minh Trail. Because of this, the Cu Chi and the nearby Ben
Cat districts had immense strategic value for the Viet Cong.
The tunnels began in 1948 so that the Viet Minh could hide
from French air and ground sweeps. Each hamlet built their
own underground communications route through the hard clay,
and over the years, the separate tunnels were slowly and meticulously
connected and fortified. By 1965, there was over 200 kilometres
of connected tunnel - from the Cambodian border in the west
to the outskirts of what was then Saigon.
As the tunnel system grew, so did its complexity. Arms stores,
hospitals, bomb shelters and even theatres to stage politically-motivating
plays were added. Sleeping chambers, kitchens and wells were
built to house and feed the growing number of residents and
rudimentary hospitals created to treat the wounded. Most of
the supplies used to build and maintain the tunnels were stolen
or scavenged from U.S. bases or troops.
to supply the tunnels' occupants with food were always built near
the surface, but with long chimneys carved out through the ground
to diffuse the smoke from the cooking fires and release it at a
medical system serves as a good example of Vietnamese ingenuity
in overcoming a lack of basic resources. Stolen motorcycle engines
created light and electricity and scrap metal from downed aircraft
were fashioned into surgical tools. Doctors even came up with new
ways of performing sophisticated surgery. By the early 1960's, the
Viet Cong had created a relatively self-sufficient community that
was able to house hundreds of people and for the most part, go undetected
by large amounts of American troops based, literally, right on top
of the tunnels.
soldiers used the term "Black echo" to describe the conditions
within the tunnels. For the Viet Cong, life in the tunnels was difficult.
Air, food and water were scarce and the tunnels were infested with
ants, poisonous centipedes, spiders and mosquitoes. Most of the
time, guerrillas would spend the day in the tunnels working or resting
and come out only at night to scavenge supplies, tend their crops
or engage the enemy in battle. Sometimes, during periods of heavy
bombing or American troop movement, they would be forced to remain
underground for many days at a time. Sickness was rampant among
the people living in the tunnels; especially malaria, which accounted
for the second largest cause of death next to battle wounds. In
spite of these hardships, the Viet Cong managed to wage successful
campaigns against a professional army that was technologically far
tunnels of Cu Chi did not go completely unnoticed by U.S. officials.
They recognized the advantages that the Viet Cong held with the
tunnels, and accordingly launched several major campaigns to search
out and destroy the tunnel system. Among the most important of these
were: Operation Crimp and Operation Cedar Falls.
Crimp began on January 7th with B-52 bombers dropping 30-ton loads
of high explosive onto the region of Cu Chi, effectively turning
the once lush jungle into a pockmarked moonscape. Eight thousand
troops from the 1st Infantry, 173rd Airborne, and the Royal Australian
Regiment combed the region looking for any clues of Viet Cong activity.
operation was, for the most part, unsuccessful. On the occasion
when troops found a tunnel, they would often underestimate its size.
Rarely would anyone be sent in to search the tunnels, as it was
so hazardous. Besides being too small for most Western men to fit
through, the tunnels were often rigged with explosive booby traps
or punji stake pits. The two main responses in dealing with a tunnel
opening were either: to flush the entrance with gas or water to
force the guerrillas into the open or simply toss a few grenades
down the hole and "crimp" off the opening. Needless to
say, the clever design of the tunnels along with the strategic use
of trap doors and air filtration systems rendered American technology
by an inability to overcome a determined but poorly equipped peasant
army the most technologically advanced fighting force in the world
was forced to adopt the most basic form of hand-to-hand combat.
of this came the so-called Tunnel Rats - an elite band of volunteer
soldiers, selected both for their bravery and, above all, their
small stature. Their motto was "non gratum anus rodentum"
- bad Latin for "not worth a rat's ass". Usually stripped
to the waist and armed with just a torch and a pistol, the "rats"
would often spend hours at a time inching through the humid, dark
tunnels engaged in a deadly game of hide and seek.
each movement the rats would have to feel for any suspect
root or wire that could detonate a carefully primed booby
trap. Some died in the process - many more were dragged screaming
from the inky blackness.
this revamped effort at fighting the enemy on its own terms,
U.S. operations remained wholly unsuccessful at eliminating
the existence of the tunnels. In 1967, General William Westmoreland
tried launching a larger assault on Cu Chi and the Iron Triangle.
Called Operation Cedar Falls, it was, in principle, exactly
the same as Operation Crimp, but with 30,000 troops instead
of the 8,000.
On January 18th, tunnel rats from the 1st and 5th Infantry
uncovered the Viet Cong district headquarters of Cu Chi containing
a half million documents concerning all types of military
strategy. Among the documents were maps of U.S. bases, detailed
accounts of Viet Cong movement from Cambodia into Vietnam,
lists of political sympathizers, and even plans for a failed
assassination attempt on Robert McNamara. With this one exception,
Operation Cedar Falls failed to achieve its objective of destroying
the communist stronghold in the region.
command center in the tunnels. Today, visitors to the complex
can enjoy a simple meal underground, sampling foods that the
underground fighters ate during the war.
the course of the war, the tunnels in and around Cu Chi proved to
be a source of frustration for U.S. military in Vietnam. The Viet
Cong had been so well entrenched in the area by 1965 that they were
in the unique position of being able to control where and when battles
would take place, thus forcing the Americans on the defensive in
a war where they clearly could have had a military superiority.
By helping to covertly move supplies and house troops, the tunnels
of Cu Chi allowed guerrilla fighters in South Vietnam to prolong
the war and increase American costs and casualties to the point
of their ultimate withdrawal in 1972.